Here's What Sexual Harassment Costs Its Victims


When Kyle Godfrey-Ryan worked as an assistant to television host Charlie Rose in the mid-2000s, she experienced a workplace environment that was anything but professional. The position didn't pay well, she says, but it required being on call 18 hours per day, and Rose's conduct sometimes involved berating her verbally, recounting a specific sexual fantasy about her and walking naked in front of her in his home, she told the Washington Post.


Eventually, Godfrey-Ryan left the job – and the field of journalism altogether. "I was at a point where I did feel worthless and incompetent, and I didn't see a way for me to excel because I believed the things that were told about myself," Godfrey-Ryan told U.S. News.


Fortunately, she says, she was able to rebound from the trauma of the experience. Godfrey-Ryan went back to school and subsequently founded her own company, Tune.Studio, which develops products to optimize happiness, creativity and well-being.


"I am happy with how this worked out for me," Godfrey-Ryan says. "But I am fighting because there are millions of women who do not share my story."


Indeed, for many victims, sexual harassment is hard to recover from. In addition to its psychological toll, it can have a long-lasting and negative impact on victims' financial lives.


According to a study published in Gender & Society, sexual harassment increases financial stress, including concerns about paying bills on time. The financial repercussions take several forms. "Women who experienced severe harassment were more likely to quit their jobs," says Heather McLaughlin, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.


McLaughlin's research focused on early-career victims of severe sexual harassment, who experienced instances of unwanted touching and/or multiple instances of other harassing behaviors.


Targets of sexual harassment were 6.5 times more likely to change jobs, according to the study. In doing so, they potentially gave up opportunities for promotion or burned bridges with former colleagues and supervisors, making it harder to secure a new gig. "It can lead to deteriorating relationships with co-workers," McLaughlin says. "You lose opportunities for positive references. You lose opportunities to move up in the organization."


Some victims of workplace sexual harassment may even determine that they're not cut out for a certain field or type of job, opting instead to take lower-paying gigs that don't carry the same risk of abuse. For example, a software engineer who experiences harassment in her workplace may opt to leave the field altogether, taking a lower-paying job in, say, teaching. For victims, "it's hard to disentangle sexual harassment at the specific workplace from the entire field," McLaughlin says.


Sometimes, the career repercussions are felt more immediately. Hourly workers who report sexual misconduct may have their hours cut by punitive managers while others may simply be fired, says Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, which seeks to connect those who've experienced sexual misconduct with legal and public relations assistance and defray the costs.


Domestic workers, for example, who experience reprisals for reporting sexual harassment don't just lose their paycheck. "They stand to lose the place they're living," Tejani says.


For others, sexual harassment may be a product of an environment that doesn't treat them well or value their professional contributions. "I think that it’s an important thing to keep in mind that women who are experiencing sexual harassment are not experiencing it in a workplace vacuum," says Sarah Fleisch Fink, general counsel and director of workplace policy at the National Partnership for Women & Families. "They are experiencing it in places where they might experience pay discrimination, discrimination on other bases, where they don't receive support."

From a personal financial perspective, losing a high salary or being passed over for a promotion can impact other aspects of employee compensation. For example, employers may link retirement plan contributions to salary. Losing a promotion may cost you in other workplace benefits, make it harder to pay off student loans or find affordable child care. All of these financial impacts can compound the financial toll of sexual harassment and widen the gender pay gap, experts say.

For women of color, the consequences of workplace harassment can be even more severe, compounded by intersecting forms of discrimination and harassment, Fleisch Fink says.

Experiencing sexual harassment can be lonely, frightening and upsetting. In addition to the career costs of sexual harassment, victims may take on medical bills as they aim to recover physically and emotionally. Tejani says that some of the women her organization works with are diagnosed with depression or PTSD. "We spend a lot of our day at work, and when it becomes about your being grabbed or groped ... it becomes terrifying," she says.

For those wishing to sue, the costs of taking legal action may also be a concern, especially if the abuser or employer has deep pockets. The process can be expensive and time-consuming, with no guarantee that the victim will win. One way to reduce the cost is to look into the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, housed at the National Women's Law Center, which seeks to connect victims of sexual harassment, abuse and assault in the workplace with affordable legal assistance through a network of attorneys and legal funding. While those who win their legal battles may receive backpay or coverage for medical costs and other expenses, winning is no guarantee.

So what can victims of sexual misconduct in the workplace do to reduce the damage to their bank accounts and future earning potential? "It's a lot to put on individual targets," McLaughlin says. "Everyone has a role to play in making sure the workplace obviously tries to eliminate sexual harassment and taking it seriously when it does occur."

In addition to the Time's Up Fund, McLaughlin notes that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and have resources for victims of harassment.

"At the individual level, it's important for women, and some men, to know what their rights are and what their legal protections are," Fleisch Fink says. For example, you may be able to enact change in your workplace and compel your employer to take action by reporting misconduct through the appropriate channels, such as to your human resources department. "Know your rights and reporting and trying to [find a] remedy in your situation is, of course, a step people can be taking before exiting [their job] and taking the first step down that hole," she says.


By Susannah Snider